AUSABLE CHASM — Dr. Henry Louis Gates is the man Kevin Bourbonnais wants to meet most right now.
Bourbonnais has an intriguing family history with a hook compelling enough to fascinate Gates, the executive producer/writer/host of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.”
Two years ago, Bourbonnais learned that his great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Johnston fled the bonds of American slavery and escaped to Canada sometime in the early 19th century. Johnston’s descendants, like Bourbonnais, live today on both sides of the border.
“I would like Henry Louis Gates to see me,” said Bourbonnais, who studies history at the University of Montreal. “I want a free DNA test. I would like to know where Joseph was from. Was his father the slave owner or another black man? It was harsh for them living at that time in Canada. Even to this day, people won’t acknowledge that they are related to him.”
Bourbonnais’s grandmother Jeanne Vaillancourt hid the photographic evidence of her black ancestry in a box.
“She never told us about that,” Bourbonnais said.
He and his aunt Nicole Lavallee recently met a long-lost cousin, Rejean Simmons of Brushton, at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm. These Johnston descendants are piecing together their family history through photographs, historical documents and oral history.
In Simmons’ branch of the family, their black roots were never hidden. In her home, she proudly displays a portrait of her great-great-grandfather Robert Urbain Johnston, Joseph’s son, who lived in Ormstown, just 20 minutes from the border.
“We grew up with it,” Simmons said. “My mom’s brothers and sisters all knew it. We didn’t have a problem with it. A lot of people you could talk to, they didn’t care about it at all. They wanted to forget about it. That’s the way it was over there in Ormstown. It’s still like that. A lot of them are buried in Huntingdon. Maybe more will come forth once the story is told.”
The 1842 Canadian Census lists Joseph Johnson as a resident of Canada East.
He is a “coloured” farmer at Jamestown, in the seigneury of Beauharnois, where he had 100 acres of land, of which only two were cleared. He owned two “neat cattle” and a horse. His household included his wife and five children, two boys and three girls, under the age of 14. All were said to be Roman Catholic.
Joseph Johnston’s paper trail includes a newspaper account of his death in the Nov. 25, 1880, edition of the New Dominion:
“Poor Old Black Joe, alias Joseph Johnston, the genial hostler at Mrs. Young’s hotel, Franklin Centre, for nigh on three score years, has at last been called on to pass in his checks having departed this life on the 14th, at the ripe old age of about ninety years. Joe was one of the institutions of old Russelltown, — now Franklin, and his final departure will recall many a skylark and a good time generally to the boys of that region of forty years ago. Of his early life and parentage, the writer, who has been intimate with him since infancy, nearly fifty years ago, never learned. It strikes him tho’ that the deceased was in some way attached to the British service during the war of 1812.”
A decade ago, Simmons first corresponded with Shirley Johnson White, another of Johnston’s descendants.
“Shirley sent me information,” Simmons said. “She said this Robert came across with his father, Joseph.”
Bourbonnais disputes whether Robert Urbain escaped from slavery. According to the 1852 Canadian Census, Robert Urbain was born in Canada.
“What Shirley told me (was that) from her uncles she learned the mother of Joseph Johnston was born in Africa,” Bourbonnais said. “I found some of my family members had features not totally Caucasian. I got glimpses from my aunt when my grandmother Jeanne Vaillancourt died. Her sister (Irene) told my aunt or uncle her father was a black man. She said that and didn’t explain it.”
A University of Montreal colleague suggested Bourbonnais search Programme de recherché en demographie historique (PRDH), a French-Canadian genealogy database, for information on his Johnston/Johnson/Jonson and Vaillancourt/Viancour/Vinecou/Vancourt/Vancour lines and allied families — Martin, Patenaude/Patnond, McDonald, Ashley and LePage.
“I had a tough time because of the spelling,” Bourbonnais said. “Frank Mackey wrote an article about blacks in the borderlands. So, there were clues in there. Joseph Johnston was my great-great-great-grandfather. One of his daughters, Phoebe, married a Vaillancourt, who is my great-great-grandfather. Joseph married a French woman, Julienne Soucisse. They had a couple of children. I found this with Frank Mackey’s help.”
In the 1861 Canadian Census, he found Toffile Viancourt, 19, and Phoebe Viancour, 22, mulatto. Both were born in Canada East.
“My great-grandfather was Theophile Vaillancourt,” Lavallee said. “Phoebe was his wife. They were the parents of my grandfather, Henry. My mother (Jeanne) didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Henry was a neighbor,” said Simmons, who grew up in Ormstown. “I was only 4 or 5. He was very, very nice.”
Bourbonnais, Simmons and Lavallee are cousins twice over as they linked on two lines, Johnston and Vaillancourt.
“After the 1900 census, no one is referred to as black or mulatto,” Bourbonnais said. “They hide it.”
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